Magazine Reading (December), #2 Sample

I read this article today, and didn’t like it one bit. 

 

“And Lead Us Not” (pp. 28-30) in Harper’s Magazine (December 2007)

 

[“By David Lewis and Philip Kitcher, from “Divine Evil” in Philosophers Without Gods, published in August by Oxford University Press.  Lewis, a professor of philosophy at Princeton, was the author of several books, including Counterfactuals and On the Plurality of Worlds.  The essay is based on an outline he wrote before his death in 2001.  Kitcher is a professor of philosophy at Columbia.”] 

Standard versions of the Argument from Evil concern the evils God fails to prevent:  the pain and suffering of human beings and the sins people commit.  The most ambitious versions of the argument claim that the existence of evil is logically incompatible with the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and completely benevolent deity.  In my view, this version succeeds conclusively.  But I think the usual philosophical discussions of the problem of evil are a sideshow.  What interests me here is a simpler argument, one that has been strangely neglected.

 

We might start instead from the evils God himself perpetrates.  In duration and intensity, these dwarf the kinds of suffering and sin to which the standard versions allude.  For God has prescribed torment for insubordination.  The punishment is to go on forever, and the agonies to be endured by the damned intensify, in unimaginable ways, the sufferings we undergo in our earthly lives.  In both dimensions, time and intensity, the torment is infinitely worse than all the suffering and sin that will have occurred during the history of life in the universe.  What God does is thus infinitely worse than what the worst of tyrants have done.

Before we continue, do LDS friends believe this logic?   First, I believe that the Bible teaches the existence of evil and that God is powerful, knowing, and loving.  Do I understand it all?  No, but I trust the God who both knew all about the evil that engulfed his celestial and terrestrial creation and the Son’s body that would be sacrificed on account of the evil.  Here are several reasons Jesus died:  1) “that he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil;” 2) that he might “deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” 3) and that he might “make reconciliation for the sins of the people” (a propitiation – a sacrifice to appease the Father who hates moral evil and is radically opposed).  Truly, no evil tyrant has voluntarily died for his enemies that they might live as revealed by the incomprehensible act of love displayed by this eternal Ruler.

Thinking of heart issues, God created an eternal hell for the fallen demons.  And yet among humans, there is the despicably infinite crime committed by those who blatantly reject an eternal atonement.  But I ask you—what greater crime is this?  Blaspheming the Spirit and trodding upon the gospel work of the Son, who is the very glory of the Father?  It is unforgivable, inconceivable.  (But I don’t take the holier-than-thou-higher-ground for I was once among the worst, wallowing in self-righteousness. I desperately needed the Father to draw me in my stupid foolishness to His Son.)

People have got to hear.  They must believe.  It is dying to the self-grasping logic of our own sinful reasoning and embracing divine logic of the biblical gospel offered with the utmost perfect love.

Yes, I don’t accept these authors in their logic.  But they go on, accusingly.

Many Christians appear to be good people, worthy of the admiration of those of us who are non-Christians.  From now one let us suppose, for simplicity’s sake, that these Christians accept a God who inflicts infinite torment on those who do not accept Him.  Appearances notwithstanding, are those who worship the perpetrator of divine evil themselves evil? . . .

You must read the full excerpt of this analysis in Harper’s Magazine.  Where does one’s logic stop in the progression?  I fast forward to the last paragraph.

. . . If admiration transmits evil, then eventually almost every living person will be infected.  The more we are prepared to be tolerant in religious matters, the more the contagion will spread.  The only ones to escape will be the committed misanthropes.  Leaving aside those who find nothing admirable in humanity, everyone will be tainted with divine evil.

May the gospel (the living, biblical reasoning culminating in Christ, sent to us out of heaven) brilliantly break forth to those trapped in this logic.  And someday when I am in heaven, rejoicing with ancient Job before the Lamb, I will understand more what I simply trust now.

9 comments

  1. As I read the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon, it seems more and more to me that God is not so much giving into the dark side, as He is conducting damage control.

    One example might be the Noachian flood – where God determined that the population had gotten so out of control that there wasn’t much point in allowing its continuation. Thus the decision to start from a blank slate.

    No, I don’t find this argument half so thorny as the original theodicy concerns.

  2. The conclusion given in the last paragraph you quote is of course absurd. But your theology of election to salvation/damnation demands the logical conclusion in the second paragraph you quoted:

    We might start instead from the evils God himself perpetrates. In duration and intensity, these dwarf the kinds of suffering and sin to which the standard versions allude. For God has prescribed torment for insubordination. The punishment is to go on forever, and the agonies to be endured by the damned intensify, in unimaginable ways, the sufferings we undergo in our earthly lives. In both dimensions, time and intensity, the torment is infinitely worse than all the suffering and sin that will have occurred during the history of life in the universe. What God does is thus infinitely worse than what the worst of tyrants have done.

    You asked, Before we continue, do LDS friends believe this logic?

    Many do because this follows logically from your theology (but not from LDS doctrines) because if God chooses who is going to accept Jesus before they are even born, that means he is choosing who will not accept Jesus before they are even born, thus God is choosing who will be tortured for eternity in the hell that he created. Indeed, one could almost say that this kind of logic is integral to LDS belief because it is one reason why Latter-day Saints believe that this aspect of your theology is not in harmony with the Gospel preached by Jesus Christ.

    LDS doctrine, by contrast, celebrates mankind’s free agency to choose or reject God. Latter-day Saints fully believe passages in the Bible that speak of God loving us first and find these passages to mean that God, our Heavenly Father, loves all of his children and therefore sent his Son Jesus Christ to die as a propitiation for our sins, i.e. the sins we are actually guilty of, and not our parents’ or ancestors’ sins.

    You might be interested in reading Alma 42 to see one ancient prophet’s musings on how the mission of Jesus Christ fits into God’s scheme of things. This chapter speaks somewhat to the issue raised by the Harper’s article. After all, the chapter opens with the following: And now, my son, I perceive there is somewhat more which doth worry your mind, which ye cannot understand—which is concerning the justice of God in the punishment of the sinner; for ye do try to suppose that it is injustice that the sinner should be consigned to a state of misery. From the first sentence at least, this seems like Alma is speaking right to the authors of the article.

    On a related note, as long as you intend to spend your life preaching against the Restored Gospel, I recommend you read the Book of Mormon very carefully all the way through. You might be genuinely surprised what you find there. I say this because you are always asking for a Melchizedek High Priest to give you authoritative philosophical (in your terms, theological) answers to doctrinal questions. The Book of Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants are an excellent place to start.

  3. Todd: I recommend these: http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/display.php?table=review&id=473 and http://blakeostler.com/docs/JSmith&ProblemofEvil.pdf

    There is a reason that I suggest two article length treatments. The issue is too important and too nuanced to treat in a small post. That said, there are very serious problems here in evangelical thought. There is the problem of predestination that John F. already talked about. Then there is the problem of propitiation in which the loving Son must somehow dissuade the angry, vengeful Father from inflicting eternal punishment for a scheme he set up and knew all of the outcomes before he ever created a thing. It means that God must be persuaded by demanding a pound of flesh before he is willing to forgive. This penal substitution view of atonement built into evangelical thought is awful theology in my view.

    Does Mormonism escape this problem of evil entirely? To the extent that God has power to stop those events and acts of free humans that we would all judge as evil, and the world better if they had not occurred, the Mormon God still must be exonerated from accountability. He could have stopped these things which we judge as evil — and yet he didn’t. Why not? That of course is the burden of my articles that I linked to.

  4. John f., I just try not to allow my logic to go beyond what the Scriptures allow.

    Secondly, I will take you up on your challenge. I have read the BoM before (even highlighted it with different colors). You would be proud of me.

    Do you know what will be the intended Scripture reading schedule in the LDS Sunday School program for the full year of 2008? If it is LDS scriptures, I will tag along with everyone else and blog the experiences on HI4LDS and my questions over the interaction with biblical scripture. How does that sound?

    John and Blake, “propitiation” is a key word in biblical soteriology. And “substitutionary atonement”? Jesus is proclaiming this in John 6:51, “my flesh . . . . for the life of the world.” This phrase ignites a whole line of similar phrases onward in John’s Gospel, sparkling like the most beautiful string of Christmas lights. I am a little child clapping in joy over the color.

    Thanks for the links. I will read them.

  5. Todd: I’m well aware of the translation “propitiation” and what it means (indeed I address it at length in the second volume of my book). I doubt that it is an adequate translation and I respectfully suggest that your proof texts don’t support anything more than that Christ was analogized to a sacrificial lamb — the substitutionary nature is something you read into the text.

  6. Todd W.,

    I cannot imagine that any informed Latter-day Saint agrees with that logic. It is a very interesting question of course, and the best precedent we have as to the answer was a statement by Joseph Smith as follows:

    What is the damnation of hell? To go with that society who have not obeyed His commands (TPJS p. 198).

    In short, the argument is wrong because hell is the way it is because of the unrepentant character of the people who are there. There is no ‘cash value’ in eternal damnation. God does not derive any benefit thereby.

    The whole purpose of the plan of salvation is to redeem mankind from the damnation of hell. Hell is what happens by default. No subsidy required.

  7. This article seems to go off in a direction I wouldn’t go, but the original point about the problem of evil is quite an interesting point. Pretty tough to answer that one from within an evangelical theology, I can see why you didn’t like the article.

  8. Careful Mark! Take a look at my comment # 2. Although, I think that your point in comment # 6 is very well taken:

    In short, the argument is wrong because hell is the way it is because of the unrepentant character of the people who are there.

    Thanks for the powerful reminder of another refreshing aspect of LDS doctrine. The people in “hell” are miserable because their choices have separated them from God and their natures (desires, attitudes, prejudices, opinions, etc.) remain in the defiled state that they put them in during life, and not because God wants to torture people out of revenge for not believing in him. Then, of course, “hell” is emptied as the last of those in Spirit Prison (which, as far as I can tell, is what Evangelicals understand as hell — they do not seem to look past the paradise/prison division to the resurrection of the dead and judgment) are resurrected and brought before God to be judged according to their works. Those who rejected Jesus Christ and the ordinances performed by the proper priesthood authority will inherit the degrees of glory which they can abide. For some, this will be a state of separation from God but still enjoying the ministry of Jesus Christ. A few will go to Outer Darkness, having effectively looked at the sun and said it is not shining.

  9. Mormons don’t really have the same theodicy problems traditional Christians do mainly because we reject creation ex nihilo. In the Mormon scheme of things, God merely organizes the material that is already there, He does not bring it into existence from nothing by sheer act of will. This means the LDS God is not responsible for evil on an ongoing basis the same way the traditional Christian God is.

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